Use coupons, buy ahead at low prices to cut drug costs

Advice abounds from supermarket-shopping gurus on cheaper ways to fill your refrigerator and pantry with food, but less talked about is how to get better value when filling your medicine cabinet with pricey medications and personal care items.

Pain relievers, allergy medications, toothpaste, contact lens solution — a lot of money is tied up inside your bathroom cabinets. An American family of four spends an average of $424 a year on drugs, $143 on medical supplies, and $769 on personal care products and services, according to the U.S. government's Consumer Expenditure Survey.

Here are a few ways to save:

COUPONS. Even if you hate clipping coupons for food, you might consider using them for medicine cabinet items. Of 1,677 usable coupons during a recent week in a certain ZIP code, 221 were for over-the-counter medications alone, said Teri Gault, founder of TheGroceryGame.com, which advises subscribers on the best use of coupons. "There are a lot of coupons for these things," Gault said. "More than food manufacturers, the drug companies also have coupons on their websites."

BUY BEFORE YOU NEED: The best overall advice for stocking the medicine cabinet is to buy items before you need them and are forced to pay full price. Many products go on sale regularly and can be had for free or nearly free. They include deodorant, toothpaste, disposable razors, ointments, cough drops, pain relievers and first-aid supplies. And when you find a deal, stock up. Use fixed-value coupons, especially if you have multiple coupons for the same item, on the smallest size, which reaps the biggest unit savings.

"If you're stocking your medicine cabinet and your goal is to buy before you need it, I wouldn't settle for anything less than 70 percent off the regular price because there are so many great deals and you can just wait," Gault said.

Gault was annoyed a couple of years ago when she ran out of cough syrup and had to pay $7 for it knowing she could have bought it earlier for $1.50. "It made me mad," she said.

Of course, the drawback of stocking medications is they could expire before you use them. Gault suggests using a permanent marker to write the expiration date in large numerals on the bottle to help identify and use oldest items first. And even if some medications expire before you finish using them, you'll have spent so little that, overall, you'll still save money, she said.

WHERE TO BUY: Supermarkets often have sale items for the medicine cabinet, while warehouse clubs are likely to have generally low prices anytime, albeit with less variety. For store brands specifically, warehouse clubs usually win, Gault said. But the big winner overall is usually chain drugstores. Major drugstore chains, such as Walgreens, CVS and Rite Aid have loyalty rewards programs that lead to big savings.

"Almost every week there's something free for your medicine cabinet at these drugstores — if not three or four things," Gault said. For example, CVS recently had the allergy medication Zyrtec on sale for $5.99, with $5.99 back in ExtraBucks Rewards, the in-store rebate that can be used on any subsequent purchase. That essentially makes it free. Add a $2 printable coupon from Zyrtec's website, and you'll pay $3.99 to get back $5.99 in rewards that you can spend on anything in the store, said Jill Cataldo, a coupon expert and blogger at JillCataldo.com.

The example features the concept of "stacking" coupons with sales for big savings. And with drugstores, you can stack coupons and sales with loyalty rewards as well. Walgreens recently had a special on St. Joseph aspirin, charging $2 and giving back $2 in Register Rewards, making it free.

Cataldo said savvy coupon shoppers love those deals. "It is rare to pay anything for pain relievers like aspirin, Tylenol and Excedrin after the combination of a coupon and loyalty deal at the pharmacies," she said.

Deal-stacking at drugstores also might be your best bet for personal care items, such as shampoo, soap, deodorant and body wash. And when buying razors, you're likely to find that deals on a package of a razor plus blades costs less than blades alone because coupons usually apply to the razor, Cataldo said. "While getting new razors over and over may not be the environmental thing to do, it is the economical thing to do," she said.

PRESCRIPTION DRUGS: Foremost, you want to listen to your doctor and pharmacist about prescription drugs. But you have ways to save money. For example, you can ask your doctor about whether a less expensive drug would be just as effective, or maybe even an over-the-counter medication.

You can also ask your doctor whether a generic prescription — one no longer under patent — would work just as well. Seewww.crbestbuydrugs.org for information by Consumer Reports on drug substitutions. Those on health plans can sometimes buy regular prescriptions in bulk by mail at significant savings. The American Medical Association "encourages physicians to supplement medical judgments with cost considerations in making these choices," according to its policy.

PILL SPLITTING: Another way to save is to buy prescription medications at double strength and split the pill in half, taking half a pill to get the correct dosage. Often the price of medication is the same regardless of dosage. So, you end up paying half-price. A plastic pill-splitting tool can make the task easier. However, some pills cannot be split, including time-release drugs and capsules. For the record, the AMA generally supports pill splitting. It encourages manufacturers to score tablets to make them easier to cut properly. Consumer Reports has a guide to pill-splitting: www.tinyurl.com/crpillsplit.

STORE BRAND OTC MEDS: For over-the-counter medications, you'll save money buying a store brand or minor brand of medication with the same active ingredient as a big-name brand — ibuprofen instead of Advil, for example. But if you're willing to keep an eye on sales and use coupons and in-store pharmacy rebates, you'll often get the name brand cheaper at the chain drugstores, Gault said.

USE FSA: If through your employer you have a health flexible spending arrangement, known as an FSA or flexible spending account, be sure to pay for qualified items with that tax-free money. The same goes for a health savings account. While purchases are more restrictive than they used to be — you can't use FSA money to buy over-the-counter medications anymore, for example — you can still use that tax-free money for other standard medicine-cabinet stock, such as bandages, contact lens solution and hearing-aid batteries.

Gregory Karp, the author of "Living Rich by Spending Smart," writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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